The Savoy | 1408 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago |773-698-6925 | Hours: Sun-Thurs 11:30am-12am, Fri-Sat 11:30am-1am
I used to work at a country club.
It’s a jarring admission as I apparently don’t strike folks as the country-club type. A rebuttal to the mouth agape or raised eye brow or foam at the mouth would sound like, “Ha! Yes, well, we were the country club that opened up because the one up the hill wouldn’t let Jews in,” or “Think Caddyshack but more family friendly and humble…but just as dirty.” None of those reasons really constituted a rebuttal, but they were true and distracted enough to ease a return to conversation.
Thursday nights were Stag nights, and for these men, their drinks of choice tended to be dark brown. Yes, there were a handful of exceptions, but for the most part, dark brown. On the rocks. Cut with something bubbly.
For the ladies on their Tuesday nights, things were much more complicated. We were always trying new things. From the newest low-calorie beer to some sort of fruity or spicy but not too spicy or festooned-with-lights-or-bells-or-umbrellas-worthy concoction to wine, we were always just one incident away from getting out a ouija board to summon help.
When the ban on absinthe was lifted in 2007, we gladly ordered a bottle. Yes, we were excited to create a new and fun drink for the ladies. The accessibility to something once illegal was the real draw, though. And the hallucinating? We knew it wouldn’t happen, but nevertheless, we fed the ladies that night and watched closely for the signs, whatever they might be. Someone facing a wall, deeply involved in a conversation. Someone batting away an invisible thing in flight. Someone spontaneously erupting in modern interpretative dance—Oh, how I would have loved to see that.
We were not successful that night. This showed in the drinks we served. “I’m just not a fan of black licorice” echoed over and over, as consistent as coughs in a convalescent ward during a flu pandemic. Thankfully, they appreciated the attempt.
This was five years ago, now, and while it hasn’t kept me up at night, absinthe has come to represent not just The one that got away but a brush with the 1920s worth another shot, just to bridge the gap with communing with dead, expat authors and their roaring lives via drink. This also meant I was once again just one incident away from a ouija board. It was this swirl of failure and anticipation welling up when I walked into The Savoy on a somewhat busy Thursday night.
Immediately, I’m thinking, “I’m just not that into black licorice.” But I rallied after shrugging off whatever fat-soluable memory capsule just burned off and re-released into the wild transom of my mind.
The place is sexy with its nautical themes framed or even embellished with subtle 1920s-era set pieces and design. Mooring rope privacy walls, wooden beams like driftwood, shiny punched-out metal here and there, sexy Edison bulbs with their illuminated filament—Chicago’s The Savoy really harkens back to the original.
Our server—Paco—was worthy of a shout out. Informative, gracious and attentive, the rhythm of the evening found the perfect ebb and flow with his helmed interventions. While this would have been enough to call everything good, I was lucky enough to be in the company of someone dating one of higher-ups in the kitchen. Because the night was quiet enough and because this chef gave into his hosting whims and, well, let’s face it: the impulse to give selflessly to his girl and the schmuck lucky enough to be at the same table – me – my vista for the night was unique.
We intended on getting a couple appetizers with a couple drinks. This meant we ordered something familiar – Oysters Rockefeller – and something a little more wild. This ended up being the Sunray Venus Clams, and not so much that they were wild per se, but because of the chorizo. No. That’s not quite true. If you stick “Sunray Venus” in front of anything – Styrofoam, toenail, file cabinet – it will seem wild. That it was stuck in front of something edible meant I perked up a little. I can’t deny that. A little research turns up drool-inducing words such as “plump,” “hint of umami” and “finishes with a seaweed, metallic flavor” with a “dramatic sunburst on a polished canvas.” Yes, please. That this dish included absinthe made it even more alluring. The inclusion of basil and piquillo pepper made it safe and yummy. But the chorizo threatened with its often strong flavors. Fresh clams are delicate in flavor, no matter how much seaweed and metal executes on the finish. Paco assuaged my fears, however. The chorizo is Spanish, and that type tends to be more delicate. What showed up on the table was true to this form, but for an unexpected reason: the broth.
I absolutely am in love with complicated broth, broth that seems to straddle the line between liquid and solid, even if that means more to do with the taste than the physicality. The Sunray Venus Clams imbued this magical state. And with toasted French bread bits to soak up all the loveliness, it saved me from not picking up the bowl and risk public embarrassment once again. I imagine the warp and weft of the broth was enabled by the viscosity of the absinthe as well as the clams. It was a great example of texture subtly grandstanding, if that makes any sense. I suppose it’s the collision of my pre-conceived notion of what “broth” means as well as “chorizo” and even “clam.”
This magic of texture was even more evident in my drink for the evening. When asked for guidance and the request of ordering the drink that most celebrated the botanicals of absinthe, Paco immediately suggested the Clandestine La Bleue. Featuring La Clandestine Absinthe, it’s shaken to fruition with egg white, Apple’s Lemon Cordial, coconut and lemon flake sea salt. The Wormwood Society’s review of La Clandestine reminds me that absinthe, like wine or Scotch or beer, is as complicated as anything with beginning, middle and end. That there’s an option to louche or drop it on a sugar cube, much like a few drops of water in Scotch or Whiskey to open it up a bit, is an incredible bonus and testament to how we cherish and savor such a worthy drink. My impression of Clandestine La Blue began with its creamy texture, possibly but not limited to the egg whites. For a good long while, my palette was immerse in botanicals. Not just anise or black licorice but a flurry of florals and herbals that, with time, I would be able to suss out of the intuited experience overwhelming my senses. Then, as that began to fade, a lovely lemony-citrus flavor arose. I’m sure the salt helped to curb and curtain the more gratuitous element of such a powerful show of chemistry. And as for the mysterious Apple’s Lemon Cordial, I’m assuming this, too, played a subtle and important role in fleshing out the mid-palate experience.
We were also fed that night Geoduck Clams and a dessert of goat cheese, cream cheese and mint nestled into the center of halved peaches along with Muscato to compliment. All stunning and luxurious.
The Savoy is delightful on many levels. And for those of you more literally-inclined folk who think of Hemingway every time you think of absinthe, or for you more unfortunate who think of lady golfers, seek out The Savoy for a more cerebral experience and catharsis. It will satisfy all sorts of appetites.